In the last week, a complex and violent conflict developing in the northern Cabo Delgado province of Mozambique has caught international attention. On one side, the shadowy armed Islamist group coordinating attacks on the region since October 2017 has become increasingly emboldened. Meanwhile, on the other, international rights groups and media have both requested transparency from the Mozambican government regarding the disappearance of a journalist in the Palma district.
There is now valid concern that Ibraimo Abu Mbaruco, a journalist working at Palma Community Radio Station, has been forcibly disappeared. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are just two of the groups calling for the authorities to locate Mbaruco. His last known contact was when he sent a text message from his phone on the evening of April 7th, describing how he was being harassed by soldiers on his way home from work. Thus far, the government has been silent regarding Mbaruco’s disappearance. This would now be the sixth time a journalist has been arrested since the group, known as either Al-Sunna wa Jama’a or Al-Shabab, began carrying out what is now over 350 attacks in the province since 2017. Since then 700 people have been killed and over 115,000 people displaced.
But it is the economic significance of the region to central government that belies this brutal treatment of journalists. The province is home to giant liquified natural gas developments and could become a key gas region for foreign powers, many of whom will be observing this conflict carefully. And this helps to explain why, over a year ago, it emerged that an official from Gabinfo -the governmental regulator of journalism in Mozambique- had revealed that the government didn’t want any focus on Cabo Delgado because “the story was embarrassing”.
The government’s broader response to the violence in the region has been equally clandestine. It continues to rely on shady private military companies to provide a solution to the conflict. On Wednesday, reports surfaced that a privately owned helicopter believed to have been flown by Dyck Advisory Group had engaged the insurgents. This company’s introduction follows failed attempts by the Blackwater military company and latterly the Russian Wagner Group to subdue the extremist cells. The haplessness of this approach is typified by Wagner’s decision to pull its troops out in March after suffering at least a dozen casualties.
By suppressing coverage of the combat in Cabo Delgado and outsourcing military intervention, the government is allowing an ugly monster to begin to rear its head. In a video that has circulated across social media this week, one gun-wielding member from the jihadist group can be seen delivering a speech to a group of citizens in a village of the province, where he states they “want a government from Allah” and “everyone here to apply Islamic law”. This follows the recent seizure of government buildings and the robbing of banks by the group over the last month, as their widely recognizable black-and-white flag has been raised over various towns and villages in the province. That the insurgents no longer cover their faces in their propaganda videos is indicative of a growing confidence.
Publicly accepting there is a problem is the first step the Mozambique government must take to prevent further loss of life. Rather than turning on their own press, and throwing money at obscure private militaries, they must revert attention to providing socio-economic support to the communities of Cabo Delgado. It is their trust they must secure, rather than that of opportunist foreign powers, to limit the risk of the insurgency picking up significant local support.
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